Happy Tap Dance Day!

Happy Tap Dance Day! Today we’re celebrating the birthday of the legendary Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Actually, across the tap dance community, we’ve been celebrating all weekend!

On Saturday I ‘attended’ the Tap Dance UK festival (proceeds going to the tap artists), and did an amazing Body Percussion workshop with Helen Duffy at 10am, watched the lunchtime panel discussion on ‘Creating work: Process, Development & Funding’ and got some great insight into how they put a show together, and then at 3pm I did Jamie Spall’s challenging tap workshop. We did have some sound issues with Jamie’s workshop, that were resolved part way through, but she’s recorded some additional footage for us to practice from.

Sunday was the day of the National Tapathon for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, so I spent some time rehearsing the routine after church, before joining the action on Facebook Live at 3pm! My SO filmed me doing the routine indoors with the live streamed tapathon led by Harrison Vaughan of The Greatest Dancer, and then he filmed me again outside in the garden so that I’d have a decent video to share with the people that sponsored me. Participants were supposed to have a run-through of the routine with Harrison before the BIG event, but it never happened, so there ended up being a few subtle changes in the live performance that threw me off slightly. If I’d have spent more time on it, I would have done some improvisation in the pauses. However, I did throw in a double pull-back at the end, just for my sponsors!

Sunday was also the day of Tap Dance Festival UK’s online benefit for the National Health Service (NHS), so despite saying I wouldn’t be doing it, they twisted my arm and I bought a pass. I joined in with the welcome and warm up at 1pm and then the faculty panel Q&A hosted by TDFUK’s organiser Suze Clandon, and joined by Tony Waag (ATDF), Harriet Spence (Theatre Tap London), Vikas Arun (ATDF/Project Convergence) and Jess Murray (Tap Dance Research Network UK), plus special guest Sarah Reich. It was both Sarah & Suze’s birthday, so we sang Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to them and wished them many happy returns! At the end of the panel discussion Sarah led us in a Shim Sham Shimmy, which was so much fun! But after that I was DONE. I totally over-did it this weekend…

Today I am enjoying the Bank Holiday by chilling out on the sofa with my feet up in front of the TV.

(I have a load of tap workshop content to catch up on from this Tap Dance weekend, plus an intermediate class I purchased from Old Kent Road Tap Company, but I’m parking physical exertion for a few days!)

A Tap Dance Weekend

I’m still on furlough from work, but they’re having me back for a couple of weeks from 8th June if it is approved by the business board. Since hearing this news I’ve felt much more upbeat about things. Being the only person furloughed from the team felt a little bit isolating, even though I catch up with them on Zoom socials every Monday morning, and I kind of felt like my job was dispensable. But then I had to focus on the fact I wasn’t just made redundant! (Although I’m aware this could still be a possibility).

I am making a particular point as of TODAY of ignoring the current rhetoric being spun at the moment by certain individuals in society that those on furlough are lazy, work-shy, are on a ‘jolly’, are getting something for nothing, are taking money from tax payers – actually I am a tax payer, and they forget that this was a decision taken by employers on the offer of help from the government to save businesses, and NOT by employees who fancied an extended paid BBQ holiday in the garden. It really didn’t help when the government said a couple of weeks into the scheme that they felt that people were becoming addicted to furlough. Really?! Most people I know want to get back to work and their usual routine and aren’t allowed! Anyway, rant over! Let’s stay positive 🙂

On Monday 25th May the tap community will be marking International Tap Dance Day, which is the birthday of the legendary Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and there are LOADS of events taking place across social media this weekend that you can take part in from home! (Just look on Instagram for starters).

  • I bought a £20 day pass to Tap Dance UK’s first ever festival this Saturday, where there’ll be classes, panel discussions and a gala to end the day – can’t wait! They’re running it to celebrate International Tap Dance Day, but also to support their dance artists financially. My teacher is one of them, but she’s not teaching my level on this occasion.
  • On Sunday afternoon I am taking part in a sponsored national Tapathon for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, celebrating their 30 year anniversary.  Hundreds of people across the UK will be performing a tap dance routine to ‘Happy Feet’ choreographed by Harrison Vaughan, finalist of BBC1’s The Greatest Dancer, echoing the record breaking largest ever tap dance UK legend Roy Castle did with 500 people outside the BBC Television Centre in 1977. My training has just ramped up as the date fast approaches! I’m currently £10 off my £200 fundraising target, but a family member last night pledged an offline donation, so I should be there by Sunday!
  • My tap teacher’s company have asked everyone to film themselves doing the Shim Sham to a slowed down version of ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing’ and submit it by this weekend so that they can put together a Shim Sham lockdown video mash-up! I was practising out in the garden this morning, but I have to say it’s kind of easy to mess up when doing it slower than I’m used to 🙂
  • Sarah Reich will be on Instagram Live on Monday doing a session on ‘Musicality for Dancers’ and said ‘bring a notepad’. I worked out it will be at 8pm GMT. That will be a pretty useful session for any tap dancer.
  • There’s also the Tap Family Virtual Reunion #quarantineshuffle happening on Instagram over the weekend, featuring Jason Samuels Smith, Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Looks interesting!
  • Tap Dance Festival UK are doing an all day festival on Sunday 24th, but I’m not going to do that one as I think it’s more expensive than the Tap Dance UK one (confusing, I know!), and I’m busy doing the Tapathon at 3pm.

Happy tapping!

Tap & Tea with Lisa La Touche

Last Thursday afternoon I had my online rhythm tap class with the aim of doing it in my garage which is all set up as a dance studio. The college is now hosting classes on Microsoft Teams, which is proving to be a challenge! On the previous week I was the only student who didn’t have a blank screen and was able to actually see our teacher’s demonstrations… and then this time, right at the start, Teams crashed out on my laptop and it refused to reconnect to the Internet, so I had to run in from the garage and grab a different device to join them again. I basically missed most of exercises before we tackled the routine – how frustrating! But at least I got back in before the end. I think I’ll stick with using the tablet for Teams stuff from now on. I just need to think about where I’m going to do these classes!

At 4pm I joined Theatre Tap London’s Tap & Tea session, with this week’s special guest, all the way from Calgary, Canada, Lisa La Touche! Lisa was a cast member of Shuffle Along (choreographed by Savion Glover), Stomp, and Sophisticated Ladies, among other amazing shows. She has won the Fred Astaire Award, the ACCA Actor’s Equity award, and was a member of Jason Samuels Smith’s ACGI tap company. Her mentor is Barbara Duffy, a founding member of American Tap Dance Orchestra. Exciting stuff!

Lisa started by showing us the mountain view from her home in Calgary, before talking about how she got started tapping recreationally at 5 years old. It was only at 8 years old when she was put into a good class with a great teacher where she learnt the Al Gilbert syllabus and moved onto a competition dance studio for more performance opportunities, which she assured us is much more intense these days (Abby Lee Miller, anyone?!).

Like Stephen Mear from week 4, Lisa also had to catch up on ballet, jazz and modern when she moved to a new dance school, particularly as a relatively late starter (bit like myself LOL). She went to watch all of her teacher’s shows, which included guests such as Buster Brown and Heather Cornell. Her teacher took classes from these guys, which then influenced her teaching of Lisa’s classes, moving away from a fixed curriculum.

She then started attending all the Tap festivals, like Tap City. She moved to Toronto to get nearer to New York, then moved to NYC in 2008 on the advice of Josh Hilberman. Once she did that, the rest is history! She took classes with some of the the big names in tap (Buster Brown, Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Barbara Duffy), and said she got her “butt kicked every week”.

Lisa was in the show Imagine Tap with a load of people who are huge in the Tap scene now – Michelle Dorrance, Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Ayodele Casel, Bril Barrett, Jason Janas, etc.

She talked about her work with Gregory Hines’ amazing protégé Savion Glover, and his methods of teaching and choreographing. This led into a discussion of the musicality of the greats, where people didn’t do ‘counts’ but just scatted it out. I have to admit I’m not a counter and find it easier to remember rhythms.

Lisa suggested that we take a jazz track (maybe something by Oscar Peterson), find a few bars that you like and repeat the beats verbally (bah-dee-bah-dah-bah-dah!) and then try it again, making the sounds with your shoes. Even if it’s just a cramp roll or a paddle. (I’m definitely going to try this!)

Lisa La Touche was so down to earth and interesting to listen to. She was my favourite so far, and they’ve all been pretty amazing!

Some La Touchisms:

Go and explore

Trust what inspires you

Tap Dance is a way of being

That was the last of our 6 week tap history series, but we have a social/Q&A on Zoom this Thursday, and then they are running another 6 week tap history series, with some different artist contributors starting the following week! I may sign up again…

Tap & Tea with Andrew Black

Last Thursday afternoon we were joined for our penultimate Tap & Tea session by New York tap dancer and choreographer, Andrew Black, who specialises in theatre tap styles of the 1920s-1940s. He’s known for White Christmas, Tap Dogs, Singing in the Rain, 42nd Street, and many more amazing shows. He currently teaches at Taps on Broadway, and confessed that he had to audition FIVE TIMES for 42nd Street. This session was a jam-packed tap history lesson!

He recommended several books that are well worth getting hold of. (It was cool – he had several huge hardback dance books piled up in the background). I have 3 of these books, and I’ve included the link to the review I wrote of the Rusty Frank book in 2017, in case you didn’t read it at the time:

Andrew is big into the MGM movie musicals and naturally, he recommended we watch them all, as well as newer stuff, such as Gregory Hines’ movies Tap, The Cotton Club and Bojangles. 

On the subject of MGM, we looked at Great Depression of 1929 and he told us to read up on ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, referring to the brief period between the first ‘talkies’ (1929) and the introduction of the strong Catholic moral code of censorship in 1934, known as The Motion Picture Production Code (aka The Hays Code). The code was introduced and enforced to clean up the movies after the release of several risqué movies and many off-screen Hollywood scandals. In those days, people went to the movie theatres for more than just a big movie release. They also went to see the news, public announcements and to watch cartoons etc, and therefore hugely influential. The code banned things like profanity, blasphemy, depictions of interracial relationships, white slavery, suggestions of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity…: “if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind”. (Note that Some Like it Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and  Tony Curtis ignored the code!) The Hays code lasted until 1966 when the film rating system came in. (Read more from BFI Screenonline)

There was much discussion about the historical segregation of black and white and the separation of Broadway tap and hoofer-style tap, ‘up-tap’ and ‘down-tap’ (‘up-tap’ being the more upright Irish style up-on-the-toes tap, and ‘down-tap’ being the more down in the ground style). 

Andrew, like everyone we’ve listened to so far, had so many positive things to say about Gregory Hines, who brought tap dance back to the stage, in shows such as Sophisticated Ladies. Mr Black was a very enthusiastic guest, and we actually ran out of time (after we over-ran), so he has been invited back when the sessions re-start in a few weeks with another line-up of amazing hoofers!

This Thursday, our last session of six, we will be joined by Lisa La Touche…

 

 

Tap & Tea with Stephen Mear CBE

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On Thursday I attended week 4 of Theatre Tap London’s ‘Tap & Tea’ tap history series. This time we were joined by two time Olivier Award winning choreographer Stephen Mear CBE! He has had a prolific career in musical theatre, and is known for his work on West End and Broadway shows including Mary Poppins, White Christmas, Funny Girl, Singing in the Rain, Sinatra, Sweet Charity and many more. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to dance.

Tap dance was the first type of dance he learned at his mother’s dance school, and he later trained in Matt Mattox style jazz dance (aka Freestyle Jazz) at London Studio Centre. I was interested to hear that he took 14 ballet classes a week to get his ballet up to scratch! He’s also probably the 4th or 5th British dancer I’ve heard say that they were the best tap dancer in their home town; then they went away to a college in London or took tap classes in New York and found themselves at the bottom of the class!

Stephen showed us and discussed clips of jazz isolations in Beat me Daddy 8 to the Bar from Bob Fosse’s ‘Big Deal’, the jazz-tap combination in The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing from ‘White Christmas’, and we also looked at a clip of his idol Ann Miller on stage in 1987 with her famous ‘Easter Parade’ number ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away‘ as part of variety show Happy Birthday Hollywood. 

There was much discussion of jazz dance, having been inspired by Matt Mattox, Jack Coles, Chet Walker, Bob Fosse, and Hermes Pan, who collaborated a lot with Fred Astaire. We found out loads about Stephen’s choreographic process, particularly as someone who is dyslexic. Someone asked during the Q&A how he notates his work, and it turns out he films everything (although assistants will write it all down in detail). He also uses dance college students to map everything out before taking it to teaching the cast.

Useful Advice from Stephen:

  • Auditions – leave your attitude outside! Choreographers all speak to each other as well, so be nice to everyone. Do the best you can, know who and what you are auditioning for. He said he looks for people who are passionate over those who are just technically brilliant.
  • Starting out as a choreographer? Try not to be too overzealous – i.e. “Just because you have a parasol in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to twirl it”. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down ideas.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this time as I’m not so into the West End stage type of tap dance, but Stephen was so interesting to listen to! I loved hearing about how it all works behind the scenes, the ups and downs, how he started out, who he worked with and who inspires him.

After this session, my passion for jazz dance was reignited and having googled Matt Mattox, I’ve ended up subscribing on YouTube to ‘Monday Mattox’ jazz (and tap) technique classes with Bob Boross (who trained under Mattox) – LOVE IT!

This coming Thursday, we’ll be joined by Broadway performer and choreographer Andrew Black.

Tap & Tea with Jenny Thomas

At last week’s ‘Tap & Tea’ we were joined by Strictly Come Dancing choreographer Jenny Thomas!

Jenny specialises in Lindy Hop and Charleston, but is firstly an accomplished tap dancer. She started tapping aged 4, trained at Doreen Bird College and later partnered Wayne Sleep on various show tours. The eye opener for her was seeing Gregory Hines’ 1989 film Tap.

Jenny shared loads of stories from her dance and choreography career, tap and audition advice and she even did a quick demo. She is such a positive person!

  • She invited us to think about how we can learn from other dance styles e.g. Jazz, Lindy Hop. Quite often other styles can influence your presentation of tap. Tap dancers from the past were all about presentation! (Watch the challenge scene from the Tap movie)
  • Her approach to teaching is about technique before steps. She gave the example of teaching professionals, who are able to pick up the steps of a routine, but it’s important to get the nuances of technique right first. The dance always looks better!
  • Tap is about constant weight change. It can end up like a boring monologue if it all sounds the same. Therefore it needs accents and syncopation, like a conversation.
  • She talked about expanding your musicality by listening to big band, boogie woogie, swing piano, blues etc. These genres tend to be easier to relate to tap, and allow the space for creativity.
  • She talked about tap dance being a street dance and the fact it is returning to its roots, having been refined by Hollywood, but today’s street dance tap revival is no longer being looked down upon as it once was.

I was interested in her tips on improvisation, because I find it a bit nerve-wracking in a group setting:

  • Listen to lots of music and the different instruments
  • Listen to a piece, stop the music and then emulate the rhythm. Play with it!
  • Check out books on improv by Barbara Duffy and Rusty Frank.

The next day, my laptop completely gave up and refused to charge, so I’ve had to order a new battery! Thankfully I’d finished my working week before going on furlough. What timing!

This week we’ll be hearing from Stephen Mear CBE…

(This post was typed on my phone, so apologies if the layout is funny)

Staying Occupied

_20200421_123856.JPGI’ve been working from home for a month now, but from Monday I will officially be on ‘furlough’ for a minimum of 3 weeks, under the UK government’s Job Retention Scheme.

It’s my 10th anniversary of working for this charity, and I had been thinking a few months ago that I could really do with a sabbatical…but these circumstances aren’t exactly what I had in mind. The reduction in pay is thankfully cancelled out by having stopped my travel season ticket payments. Shows just how expensive train travel is!

I’ve been asked by a couple of people what I’m going to do with the time. ANYONE who knows me knows that I ALWAYS have projects on the go! I won’t go crazy trying to do all of this list, but I have some of the following to keep me occupied:

  • My soap biz – I want to practice the cold process some more, continue to sell off old stock online and do some social media posts, as well as getting online orders out.
  • Jobs around the house – spring cleaning, replacing peeling wallpaper in our bedroom, decluttering.
  • The garden – keeping it tidy and watered. I’m also trying to grow tomatoes and propagate plants from cuttings! I was given a Garden Design online short course for my birthday, which I might have a crack at.
  • Tap dance – weekly rhythm tap classes continue from the first week of May, plus I’ll keep practising in my garage. Tap & Tea Thursdays on Zoom continue for at least another 3 weeks.
  • Exercise – I’ve been doing 80s aerobics plus some ballet barre exercises and stretching in the garage every week day around 5pm. This must continue!
  • Study – I have the final 2 modules of my HR Practice studies to complete, both of which include a filmed skills test. I’m more used to speaking to the camera since the lock-down!
  • Writing – I love to write! And obviously I’ll keep writing this blog 🙂

There are also downtime things like reading books and magazines, chatting on the phone and messaging friends and family, quiz nights, jigsaws and games, catching up on TV shows and my mindfulness interior design colouring book :)) Plus we have church online at the moment. 

For continuity and so I don’t feel weird when I go back to work, I plan to continue joining my team’s daily catch-ups online, but just on Monday mornings.